Art Carden  

"Social Welfare Groups" Defined in the Process of Their Emergence

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One of my favorite essays in the social sciences is James Buchanan's very short "Order Defined in the Process of its Emergence." It probably has the highest ratio of insight-to-text of any article I've ever read, and I come back to it often--particularly in light of events like the recent scandal in which the IRS "singled out conservative groups for special scrutiny" when they applied for tax exempt status.

It's easy (and perhaps intuitive) to say things like "tax-exempt groups shouldn't be allowed to engage in political activity" or "education produces positive externalities and should therefore be subsidized." But what is "political activity"? What is "education"? My definitions may be very different from yours. Paying the armies of lawyers necessary to work this out might actually cost more than the purported benefits of the restriction or the subsidy, and these aren't terms with objective definitions that lie waiting to be discovered. They are constantly in flux, with new types of political activity and education emerging as people come up with ever-more creative responses to the world around them. They are defined in the process of their emergence.

I've visited Buchanan a few times elsewhere, here and here. A question for the readers:

What are other examples of phenomena, products, organizations, or ideas that are defined in the process of their emergence?


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Greg G writes:

Government itself is quite obviously both an organization and a process that is defined in the process of its emergence. Too often, free market enthusiasts simply use the term "emergence" as little more than a compliment for only those processes they approve of.

Millions of voters choose many thousands of political representatives who then hire many thousands more government employees to administer the laws they pass. All of these individuals have complex personal motives. These individuals (and the organizations they create) then compete and co-operate with each other producing results that are unpredictable and full of unintended consequences.

You don't have to like this process to recognize it is as emergent as any other.

Hazel Meade writes:

But what is "political activity"? What is "education"

I've been pointing out to people that the PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) have been enjoying tax-exmept status since the 70s. The PIRGS are advocacy groups started by Ralph Nader that lobby the government and "educate" the public on public health and safety issues. Essentially these are the people who tell you to wear your bicycle helmet and lobby for bicycle helmet laws. So is telling people statistics about bike helmet safety effect "educating" ? They seem to think so. But statistics can be manipulated - see the statistics on breast cancer and mammograms. Most of the time, the "educating" of the public is reall an indirect form of lobbying. Building "awareness" is a way of rousing political support and money for the cause. It's also hard to say that the PIRGs are non-partisan based on their list of causes and their origins.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

We do have to realize that the "legislation," the actual statutory language, like so much that has been produced by Congress over the past 60+ years is a mere skeleton of "objectives," delegating to the Administrative State the powers to shape actual "law" as regulations.

Troy Camplin writes:

literature, art, money, the sciences, the social sciences, philosophy, religion, philanthropy, democracy, technological innovation, the family, property rights, morality, common law, education, language -- just to name a few off the top of my head

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Every organization that "emerges" can be said to be "defined" in the process of emerging.

Neo-institutionalists would point to the issue of organizational legitimacy, for example, to demonstrate just this kind of "emergent definition."

But what about de-legitimization? De-institutionalization? Isn't that also "defining"? In this case, what is un-defined (or deconstructed) is the taken-for-grantedness that supported it to begin with.

Another thought about Samford's Templeton grant -- congratulations!

Randomness is problematic, but no more so than Divine Providence (unless you are a Calvinist). Emergence qua emergent scaling properties (John Tyler Bonner, Why Size Matters: From Bacteria to Blue Whales) are open to Bejan's constructalism, I think, a version of Intelligent Design.

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